Are User-Generated Issues Worth It?
Free content is tempting, but someone still has to edit it.
For its 10th anniversary issue in June, Budget Travel solicited some 2,800 pitches from readers, using them to generate all of the text and photography to create a 100 percent user-generated issue of the magazine.
The same month, This Old House became the first Time Inc. title to publish a 100 percent user-generated issue, with a â€śYour Old Houseâ€ť logo overlay on the cover.
BusinessWeek plans to publish a double issue in August filled with user-generated content focused on workplace challenges. Topics include â€śwork-life balance, staying entrepreneurial, toxic bosses, time-management, negotiating bureaucracy, and generational tension.â€ť
While user-generated content gets the buzz online, most editors have largely been reluctant to turn over pages from their shrinking print folios to readers.
And with shrinkingâ€”in some cases, frozenâ€”editorial budgets, the idea of employing user-generated content, rather than paying freelancers, is tempting. But if youâ€™re thinking youâ€™ll save money on a user-generated issue, be forewarned: editing users isnâ€™t easy, and may actually cost you more in the long run.
Budget Travel picked up 324 contributors for the issue. A piece called â€ś50 Reasons You Love New Yorkâ€ť elicited 500 submissions alone.â€śLetâ€™s be perfectly clear,â€ť Budget Travel editor Erik Torkells wrote in a recent blog post for FOLIOmag.com. â€śMaking this issue was neither cheap nor easy.â€ť
The magazine paid â€śnormal feesâ€ť (about $1 a word) to its contributors, Torkells says, as well as travel expenses for companionsâ€”â€śsomething we donâ€™t do for professional writers.â€ť (Sending a family of four to Hong Kong, Torkells says, blew out the magazineâ€™s travel budget, no pun intended.)
But without an â€śextraordinary amountâ€ť of â€śdeft editing,â€ť the issue â€śwouldâ€™ve been a mess,â€ť he says. â€śEditing non-professional writers is never easy, especially when youâ€™re asking them to write long.â€ť
This Old House had a similar experience in producing their user-gen issue. Executive editor Kathryn Keller says the magazine received thousands of e-mails, letters, photos and projects since editor Scott Omelianukâ€™s first call for submissions in his December editorâ€™s letter.
In addition to the letter, the magazine created a dedicated microsite for readers to upload materials and then called for submissions at the end of magazine stories, in e-mail blasts and during the credits of the This Old House television show.
Although ad pages were up 3 percent over the same issue last year (which was created by the in-house staff), publisher Matt Turck says that the magazine â€śactually had to invest a little more than usualâ€ť to create it, due in part to the costs associated with building and managing the microsite. However, he says, â€śit was an advertiser success and early signs show a consumer successâ€”we plan to do it again.â€ť
The concept of a user-generated magazine is not new. In fact, itâ€™s already been done in the travel category. 8020 Publishingâ€™s Everywhere magazineâ€”comprised entirely of user-generated content on travelâ€”was launched in 2007 after 8020â€™s successful launch JPG, a magazine is comprised entirely of submitted photography.
Itâ€™s a nod, Torkells says, to one of the major changes to have affected the travel industry in the past 10 yearsâ€”namely, that consumers are turning to each other as much as to so-called experts for planning their trips. â€śYou still need editors,â€ť Torkells says of Everywhere, adding that thereâ€™s a â€śbroad, service elementâ€ť to Budget Travelâ€™s issue that Everywhere doesnâ€™t have.
Larger magazines have dabbled in user-gen, too. Wired has experimented with user-generated content in the magazine and on special covers; Dennis Publishing recently announced that its Bizarre magazine in the U.K. would relaunch with a direct focus on user-generated content; and magazines such as Time and Esquire have devoted feedback-style sections to content generated on their Web sites.
Torkells says he plans to do another user-generated Budget Travel issue in 2009. â€śIn the future,â€ť Torkells says, â€ślove it or hate it, an editorâ€™s role will be to lead a conversation, not deliver a monologue.â€ť